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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Ezekiel - Introduction

Commonly considered the most difficult of the major prophets, Ezekiel's perceived obscurity actually reflects a tantalizing combination of obscurity and clarity. The book combines precise dating and clear, logical structure with bizarre imagery, opaque historical references, abrupt changes in subject-matter and literary style, and numerous grammatical and textual difficulties. Anchored in a specific historical context and well-documented events, but presented via a series of weird visions and grotesque metaphors, the book is above all, tantalizing. Whereas a reader might easily despair of comprehending every reference in Hosea or Jeremiah, Ezekiel continually holds out the elusive potential for order and precision.

As early as the first century CE, Ezekiel's structure impressed the historian Josephus, who commented that the prophet had left behind ‘two books’, probably the oracles of chs. 1–39 and the temple vision of 40–8 . Ezekiel's structure and composition have continued to be debated by commentators up to the present day. Recurring themes and key words and a readily apparent overall structure give the work a striking appearance of unity (see Greenberg 1983 ). At the same time repetitions, the use of a broad range of genres and literary styles, and seeming anachronisms have raised the question of whether the book's apparent unity is simply the work of an especially talented redactor of earlier fragments or even of a succession of such redactors (see esp. Zimmerli 1979 ).

Writing in 1924, Gustav Hölscher concluded that only 144 of the book's 1,273 verses (all of them poetry) were attributable to the ecstatic prophet Ezekiel, while the rest of the book derived from a tedious and legalistic post-exilic priest. Such radical minimalism represented the form-critical conventions that (1) all prophecy was originally oral; (2) the original oracles consisted of brief, formulaic utterances; and (3) a change in genre could generally be taken to indicate a change in author. In addition, anti-Jewish sentiment tended to idealize the Israelite prophets while decrying the ‘decline’ represented by early Judaism. Brief, poetic oracles were considered ‘authentic’ prophetic utterances, and thus superior to legal or didactic material, all of which was considered late and spurious. As academic assumptions changed over the course of the twentieth century, particularly the rejection of strict form-critical categories and heightened awareness of literary techniques, scholarly assessment of Ezekiel underwent a marked change, so that in 1983 Greenberg could create what he called a ‘holistic’ reading of the prophet and Davis (1989 ) explore Ezekiel as the first writing prophet. At the beginning of the twenty-first scholars, focusing on the book's complex and interlocking literary patterns, tend to attribute as much as possible to the original prophet. While additions are acknowledged (all of chs. 40–8 are frequently considered an addition), the book's substantial unity is widely accepted. Agreement on Ezekiel's unity, however, does not settle the question of authorship. Relative literary unity may indicate that the book derives substantially from the sixth-century prophet Ezekiel or that the work is largely the achievement of a later redactor so thoroughgoing as virtually to have authored the book.

Ezekiel displays a wide range of literary styles, from the intense disjointedness of Ezekiel's first vision (chs. 1–3 ) to the systematic dryness of his last (chs. 40–8 ). Perhaps its most striking literary feature, however, is its use of symbolic language. In addition to visions comprising approximately a third of the book, Ezekiel employs vivid extended metaphors to bring his charges against Judah and its neighbours. The metaphors are chiefly ironic, playing on and subverting commonly used symbols of national pride and identity (see EZEK 15:1–8 ). Thus, the lion of Judah becomes a rabid man-eater; Judah the luxuriant vine a dried-up twig; Jerusalem the faithful bride a perverse prostitute; and Tyre the merchant ship a foundering wreck. Throughout Ezekiel a strong visual sensibility predominates. Ezekiel sees visions that in turn contain seeing eyes and old men gazing at pictures, while he himself is instructed to observe carefully all that he sees. The extended metaphors are graphically intense, with the depictions of Jerusalem (exposing herself to all passers-by) and her lovers bordering on the pornographic. The emphasis on seeing builds on Ezekiel's role as witness to Judah's depravity and to YHWH's acts of self-vindication, and enlists the reader as witness alongside the prophet.

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